Why Do Employees Resist Change, and What Can Leaders Do About It?
Why Do Employees Resist Change, and What Can Leaders Do About It?

Why Do Employees Resist Change, and What Can Leaders Do About It?

Leadership Development, Employee Learning & Development, Company Culture   — 4 MIN


Change is inevitable in life and at work. But while changes at home are often due to choices (such as deciding to have a child, or to move to a better school district), changes at work are usually made by upper management. Employees aren’t always asked their opinion, or given a chance to contemplate pros and cons. Not surprisingly, employees often show resistance to change.But we’ve seen a lot of good that has come from change in the workplace. Using the internet for research seemed foreign at first, but now we’d never go back to encyclopedias. Zoom calls caused a lot of frustration when COVID hit, but many now appreciate that virtual meetings let us work from home. Why, then, do employees resist changes as soon as they hear about them? 

Perhaps it’s not change itself, but the uncertainty that comes with it. Here’s how leaders and HR professionals can address that uncertainty and formulate a plan to combat resistance. 

Resistance to change comes from the what-ifs, whys, and hows

According to research at UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, uncertainty causes tremendous stress on our brains. Not knowing what will happen next is perceived as a threat, and the brain responds by triggering avoidance behaviors to protect us. In lab mice, this means not eating a new food, or hiding in a corner rather than exploring a new cage. Avoiding or resisting the unknown altogether, however, isn’t always a good thing. 

“There's always a trade-off between avoiding things that are potentially dangerous and exploring them because there might be a payoff,” says Vikaas Sohal, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. “We always are evaluating both things. What we do, how we react, what action we choose, really depends on how much we weigh these things.”

Whether changes within an organization affect policies, structure, or technology, employees are bound to feel uncertain about them. As leaders, the best way to handle employees' uncertainty is to try to understand it, address their concerns, and let them know what the payoff will be. 

Changes in the workplace will always elicit the following questions. It’s up to management to set expectations straight to reduce resistance.

Will this help or hurt my career?

When restructuring changes are made, it’s natural to experience job insecurity. Wondering if jobs will be cut can lead team members to look elsewhere, or to have so much anxiety that they begin to fail at their current job. Instead of instilling fear during these times, it’s better to focus on improving psychological safety.

  • Provide reassurance by explaining how the change will impact their role and how it will help the organization. 
  • Give a heads-up well in advance to allow employees to comprehend the changes before they are made. 
  • Make employees aware of training opportunities that will help them adapt to their new role and improve their future with the company. 

Am I losing control over my work?

Employees who have strived to become autonomous may have a heightened sense of uncertainty toward change within an organization. After working hard to establish a system that allows them to do their job well, big changes can cause frustration. To avoid resistance to change by these employees:

  • Ask for recommendations. For example, if there are decisions to be made regarding one new software over another, allowing them to choose a preference can show that you trust their judgment. 
  • Be flexible. Let’s say you have a new rule that remote employees must come into the office three times a week. Letting them choose which days allows them to maintain some sense of control. 
  • Offer self-directed learning opportunities. Someone who is used to working on his own might balk at being asked to manage a new employee. Providing bite-sized microlearning lessons in leadership development will allow him to learn valuable management skills while still being able to do his job.  

How much more work will fall in my lap?

Changes that lead to added responsibilities can lead to feelings of resentment, especially if employees don’t see value in the changes. A comprehensive study of reactions to organizational change shows that many workers resist change when they fear being overloaded. A good practice in change management is to reduce these fears by:

  • Having honest conversations about exactly how much work will be required, and for how long. Knowing there’s an end in sight can help employees push through a few hard months.
  • Being transparent about what benefits the extra work will bring. Feeling they are a part of a big, important picture instills a sense of purpose rather than resentment.
  • Offering assistance to prioritize extra tasks. Employees who are bombarded with new duties often have trouble balancing them with their normal work routine. Knowing what needs to be done first can take the stress out of guessing.  

What if something bad happens again?

Resistance to change is certain if employees have been let down before. To convince those who equate change with negativity that “this time will be different,” leaders will have to make an extra effort. This will require:

  • Letting employees know it’s okay to ask questions. As soon as discussions begin regarding change within an organization, every meeting, every email, and every conversation should end with “What questions do you have?” Clearing up uncertainty right from the start is the best way to avoid resistance to change.
  • Listening openly to employee feedback. Skeptical team members need to know their ideas are valued and their opinions matter. They’ve been through this before and saw what didn’t work, so their suggestions can be beneficial in discovering what does.
  • Showing them they are worth your investment. Employees who have been burned before will ask “What’s in it for me this time?” By providing them with professional development opportunities that make career advancement possible, they will see that you don’t just view them as a warm body that can implement changes, but as someone who is truly valuable to your business. 

Training in change management is essential for company leaders

Any company that doesn't make changes runs the risk of being left behind, but positive results are hard to achieve if employees aren’t happy about modifications. The entire change management process must focus on providing training to team members, giving them time to get used to new procedures, and reassuring them of their value. 

If your managers and team leaders don’t have the empathy, communication, and problem-solving needed to successfully roll out changes, HSI Blue Ocean Brain can help. Schedule a consultation with our team for soft skills training today.